"DARK ANGEL" — Masterpiece, KUED, May 21, 8 p.m. MDT, TV-14
Sweet, innocent Anna from "Downton Abbey" has turned to the dark side in Masterpiece's new one-night, two-hour television drama "Dark Angel," airing May 21. Here, instead of a lovable lady's maid, Joanne Froggatt portrays the real-life Victorian serial killer Mary Ann Cotton.
Like a darker version of "Arsenic and Old Lace," Mary Ann claims the lives of her closest family and friends by poisoning their tea. Because arsenic is tasteless and mimics the symptoms of typhoid fever and cholera, it was all too easy in the Victorian age for Mary Ann's murders to pass by unnoticed.
The show is less a horror flick, especially because Mary Ann's chosen form of murder is not bloody or violent, and more a psychological look at this woman's descent into madness.
She starts out relatable. It's easy to empathize with this impoverished woman who has child after child, sees too many of them die, struggles to feed the ones who live, and is completely dependent on her husband who can't seem to earn enough for the family to live. When he's injured and out of work, the arsenic Mary Ann bought to kill bed bugs turns into the poison she uses to get her husband's life insurance payout. It is, she hopes, a chance to start over.
There's a feminist tinge to "Dark Angel," as Mary Ann frequently complains about Victorian women's dependence on men. Unable to provide for herself, she is forced to endure "husbands and children and slavery." She also expresses anger at God for taking almost all of her eight children from her. She seems to see her murders as a way of playing God, of taking back control over life and death, as well as a way for her to move up in society.
Mary Ann finds power in her charisma and beauty, giving her some control over men to use them to her advantage. She has no difficulty obtaining four different husbands and multiple sexual partners — she only struggles to find one that meets her expectations. Her dreaded tea is only arm's length away for those who disappoint her. And tragically, they all disappoint.
Froggatt plays Mary Ann with a humanity that viewers may almost find uncomfortable, considering where this character ends up. It becomes difficult to watch her turn into something unrecognizable and evil. In Froggatt's hands, Mary Ann is remorseless in her crimes, often killing those who show her the most kindnesses simply because they stand in the way of that mysterious something more she is constantly pursuing.
As the title indicates, "Dark Angel" is a dark journey, but it's also intriguing and spell-binding enough that you can't look away.
Content advisory: "Dark Angel" contains mild swearing and violence and some mature sexual content.